The Notebook was a big hit in 2006, but there’s a scene in the movie that hits very differently 15 years after its release.
Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling), a poor young lumber worker, spots Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams), a rich out-of-towner, at a country fair.
He is immediately obsessed. Within a few minutes, he is climbing a Ferris wheel trying to get a date.
When she knocks him back, twice — because, presumably, who the heck is this guy climbing the Ferris wheel? — he basically threatens to fall to his death unless she submits.
“I’m gonna ask you one more time,” he says. “Will you or will you not go out with me? I think my hand’s slipping.”
She relents. Then he makes it out like it was emphatically her idea.
“I wanna go out with you.”
“Say it again.”
“I wanna go out with you!”
“All right, all right, we’ll go out.”
This is an example of a male character who is relentless in his pursuit of a woman, and whose obsession is framed in the narrative as the righteousness of true love.
They are meant to be together. It is destiny. She just doesn’t know it yet.
But this trope is now being challenged. In the past few years, pop culture creators have recognised that underpinning this kind of scene is a harmful set of behaviours.
“It normalises men not respecting women’s right to say no and it normalises the idea that if you keep harassing a woman, essentially, she’ll eventually say yes,” says Jenna Guillaume, the author of two YA romantic comedies.
“And that just that encourages stalking and harassment and removes women’s agency and ability to consent.”
It’s not just The Notebook
These storylines are everywhere in popular culture.
There’s Sylvester Stallone’s eponymous character in Rocky, who badgers Adrian to come inside his house, dismisses her when she says she’s uncomfortable, then forces himself on her.
There’s Simon Baker’s character in The Devil Wears Prada, an idealised man-of-letters who keeps kissing Anne Hathaway’s character, despite her protests, until she finally gives in.
And it’s not just the “Determinator”, as the website TV Tropes labels them — the dogged pursuer who won’t take no for an answer.
Take the famous cue cards scene in Love, Actually.
It has been the subject of thousands of words on the internet. One writer called it “creepy and appalling”.
“No normal, halfway decent person would behave as [Mark] does, and no normal, halfway decent person would receive such a gesture with giggles and then reward the gesturer with a kiss — even a chaste one — while her new husband waited upstairs, oblivious,” Christopher Orr wrote in The Atlantic.
Another said of Mark’s cue cards:
People have started to realise the grand gesture, a staple of romance storylines – think John Cusack in Say Anything turning up outside a woman’s house with a boombox – isn’t so grand.
Like a public marriage proposal, it can feel coercive and only interested in one party’s desires — the man’s.
Where does this come from?
To understand this phenomenon, “you have to rewind to literature and narratives around romantic love, and what does romantic love mean, particularly romantic love under patriarchy,” says Lauren Rosewarne, who teaches political science and gender studies at the University of Melbourne.
“And under patriarchy, that means men have the choice; men choose you.”
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The expectation is that women will resist at first, Rosewarne says, because things that are hard to get are considered more valuable.
Chuck in the idea of destiny — a staple of love stories of yore — and the need for some kind of narrative tension and you have a recipe for dogged pursuit.
“That it’s OK that she resists at the start because eventually you’re going to wear her down and she’s going to come to you and see the pursuit as not aggressive but as demonstrative of love.”
It’s not because the film and TV industries are dominated by men, though that’s part of it.
You see it in Mills and Boone-style romance novels, a female-led genre. And Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was essentially stalking reframed as undying love.
It’s because “we’ve all grown up in the same culture that is teaching us what constitutes romance”, Rosewarne says.
Why it matters
Male entitlement, stereotyping and gender inequality can be drivers of intimate partner violence, according to Domestic Violence Victoria.
A study in the journal Communication Research found these kinds of “romanticised pursuit behaviours” in popular culture can desensitise people to stalking.
In 2015, a Tasmanian man argued in court that Bollywood films contributed to his stalking of two women whom he believed would eventually fall in love with him.
“What we watch at the cinema or on TV reflects what we as a society think is acceptable, and what men see as acceptable in a relationship,” Patty Kinnersly, the CEO of Our Watch, which works to prevent violence against women, says.
“Many common social norms about men are harmful to both men and women and can help maintain and drive gender inequality and violence against women.”
Dr Rosewarne isn’t convinced media portrayals can negatively influence people’s behaviour in the real world.
Many people watch horror movies and don’t become psychopaths, for example. Escapism is part of the allure.
But she does think popular culture tells a story about our values and “that telling that story over and over and over provides an informal education about things that people do in the pursuit of love”.
The approach is changing
Awareness has made audiences more critical of the trope. In turn, producers in the past few years are more likely to avoid it or actively subvert it.
She loves the grand gesture in 10 Things I Hate About You, where Heath Ledger’s character breaks into song in a football stadium, but she also recognises its problems.
“And so in both of my books I actually have a direct tribute to the 10 Things scene where I’ve got one of the guys singing to her,” she says.
“But it kind of goes a little bit disastrous. And she feels very uncomfortable with the situation.”
Please Like Me, the Australian TV series, had a scene that mocked the Love, Actually cue cards.
Newer romantic comedies like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Love, Simon have featured romantic gestures that don’t trod on women’s agency or set up a pursuer/pursued binary.
The latter, released in 2017, has its own Ferris wheel scene. The difference is that rather than Simon forcing the hand of Blue, his anonymous pen pal, he tells Blue to meet him at the Ferris wheel if he wants to.
“He says, ‘I’ll be on the Ferris wheel waiting for you. It’s up to you’,” Guillaume says.
“He’s leaving the ball in Blue’s court over whether he feels safe and comfortable to meet him there. And he does. And it’s a beautiful scene.”
For Kinnersly, this kind of change is important.
She says producers and creators should “use popular culture to demonstrate to men and boys that there are positive, caring and respectful ways of being a man and relating to women”.
You can still enjoy those 90s rom-coms
Neither Guillaume nor Dr Rosewarne think you should cross those favourite rom-coms off your comfort-viewing list.
“There’ll be people who go and watch Gone with the Wind and still get something out of it,” Rosewarne says, referring to the Disney classic that was recently the subject of a racism scandal.
“And that same person might also be the person who could say, ‘I see it as hugely problematic’.”
Guillaume still enjoys Gosling in The Notebook – “he’s just so dang charming” – and Twilight, too, though it’s hard.
“Some things you just have to acknowledge that they are problematic and be compassionate with yourself that it’s OK to still enjoy these things, as long as you are recognising the unsavoury elements.”